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Traveling nurse Logan Lee is teaching President Biden what it’s like to be out in rural America

Logan Lee in Paintsville, Kentucky, where he is living and working as a traveling nurse. Photo by Rodney Hagan
Logan Lee in Paintsville, Kentucky, where he is living and working as a traveling nurse. Photo by Rodney Hagan

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Logan Lee is on day two of his latest assignment as a traveling nurse in one of the most rural fringes of Kentucky. This time Lee is in Paintsville, Kentucky, a town of a few thousand souls living among the rolling hills of Appalachia, miles away from any sort of big-city life. 

Lee is accustomed to rural life and its social mores, having grown up in Lebanon, in central Kentucky (population 6,355). Indeed, despite the conservatism and casual homophobia he experiences, Lee insists he wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else.

Can you force acceptance? No,” Lee says of small towns like his own that tend to be whiter, straighter and more Christian than the vibrant and diverse populations of dense urban areas. “But can you gradually open the minds of others and allow them to see that it’s OK? Yes. It’s a very slow, gradual process. It takes time, lots of time. We all want to be treated with respect, no matter who you are. However, especially in the South, you just have to move slower to gain acceptance here; that is just how life is.”

Indeed, this is the next battleground for queer equality: rural areas and small towns where progress is more tentative and where LGBTQ life tends to be more closeted. It is also the subject of Lee’s 2021 memoir, Small Town Gay: Growing Up Different in the South, in which he offers insight into how change and tolerance take hold across red America.

It starts with understanding — and appreciating — local traditions rather than simply dismissing them, a problem that big-city gay activists sometimes succumb to. And no one is better positioned to teach that than Lee, whose book is a love letter of sorts to the sweet tea, cornfields, tractor parades, extended family, and fried chicken dinners that define his upbringing.

“I like the customs and traditions of my town; the fact that I know everyone there — how we stop and wave and greet each other all the time,” Lee told LGBTQ Nation in late June. “It really just suits me. And that’s how we are going to make change.”

The book has been celebrated by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and President Joe Biden. “I sent copies to each of them and they both wrote back,” Lee said. “Biden wrote, ‘We still have a long way to go in America, but we’re going to get there,’ I mean how cool is that.”

Of course, Lee conceded, the population limits of a town the size of Lebanon makes finding love particularly challenging, as is the need to “tiptoe” through his queer existence around straight southerners. It’s not like Grindr lights up with locals like it does in New York or San Francisco. “This kind of life can be hard when it comes to finding love,” Lee said. 

But he simply doesn’t buy into the notion that fulfillment can only be found in a major metropolis.

And in the meantime, he’s doing the hard work of changing hearts and minds.

“I kill people with kindness, that is just how I am,” he said with a laugh. “But, honestly, I’m not trying to change peoples’ minds completely. I’m just trying to make them a little more open-minded and accepting of individuals who may be a little different.”

LGBTQ Nation chatted with Lee about coming out to his conservative Christian parents, his love of all things rural, and how change comes to small-town America.

Logan Lee. Photo courtesy of Logan Lee
Logan Lee. Photo courtesy of Logan Lee

Tell us about your life now, Logan.

I am in a tiny town called Paintsville, Kentucky — they maybe have a population of 3,500. I am used to small-town life, but this place is very small — very, very small and surrounded by mountains. In fact, it is so small that there’s no cell service in some areas. I work as a traveling nurse going from community to community for 13 weeks at a time to work in local hospitals. I work through a staffing agency and they help with housing and making sure I am completely set up. I’ve never been this far east in Kentucky and when I saw an opportunity open up here, I decided to take it. 

What’s it like there?

This was once coal country, filled with people who made their living off of coal. That all changed over the past 15 years, when the mines were shut down and folks lost their sources of income. People were left with nothing and so, today, many of them live off government benefits. 

Is there gay life there?

There is gay life everywhere — it can just be much harder to find in smaller communities. People are closeted, deeply so. There’s a lack of education, of awareness and this mindset is passed down through the generations. But like everywhere there are humans, you can download Grindr. It’s just there is stigma around it here. But in smaller areas, it is really the only way to find other people like yourself for any sort of friendship or community. 

“There is gay life everywhere — it can just be much harder to find in smaller communities.” — Logan Lee

Where can folks like you gather?

In Paintsville, Kentucky, where I’m working, I see no establishment where we can meet. There are no gay bars or anything like that. In my hometown of Lebanon, there are also no places where we can meet. Besides going over to friends’ houses, there is nothing. The closest gay bar to Lebanon is about an hour and 15 minutes away in Lexington or an hour and 30 minutes away in Louisville. Those are also the closest areas where you could find supportive places.

Do you visit bigger cities for a sense of community?

I’ve spent lots of time in big cities. Usually, I take nursing posts that are within driving distance of somewhere bigger. For instance, during one work gig in Pennsylvania, I would go to New York every weekend. And I loved it. But I love nature and the outdoors. When I was in New York, I would lie in my hotel room and close my eyes and think about the mountains and hills and creeks, and wish I was back home.

What would make life better in small towns?

I really believe in many of the traditions of the South — I believe in Southern hospitality. But we just lack the right kinds of LGBTQ information and resources. And this can make life hard. In New York or Atlanta, folks struggling with their sexuality have many places to seek help — we don’t have that in smaller towns. There’s a lack of visibility, you don’t see Pride flags. But we have this new business in town and it actually has a Pride flag in the air — the first time I’ve ever seen one in my town.

Factory in Lebanon, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Logan Lee
Factory in Lebanon, Kentucky. Photo courtesy Logan Lee

Well, that must have been a shock!

I pulled over, hopped out of the car, and took a picture of it. I was like, “Oh my God, what are these beautiful, bright colors in my small hometown?” I sent the photo to my cousins and they had the same reaction — “OMG!” But what was amazing is that no one really said anything, there wasn’t really any backlash or outrage, which is pretty great. 

You have a lot of cousins. How accepting are they?

They are 100 percent accepting of me. Which is not surprising for the cousins my age or younger who have been more supportive or even open to talking about being LGBTQ. As for the older cousins, I haven’t really been around them enough to hear their thoughts or ask them. We are all good, friendly. But, I don’t want to start a fire that’s hard to put out.

You came out at 19 or so. What was that like? 

I came out to my mom first when I was about 19. She has been OK with it, but I think I’ve actually heard her say the word gay like three times in my entire life. It’s just not something people really talk about here. Maybe there is a sense you can like guys, but you dating them or being with them — that’s something else entirely. And it’s a no! 

“You can show people that even though they may have different opinions, it’s OK to accept others who are different.” — Logan Lipton

How did the coming out happen? 

Basically, I walked into the home office room and stood behind her nervous as heck. I thought at first, I will tell her I’m bisexual to ease into this. I knew I only liked men but I thought she would take it easier. She stayed calm and asked me questions like, “What makes you think you like men?” She then told me not to tell my dad right away because she was afraid of his reaction. And so I waited till later to tell him. 

But you obviously told him eventually.

A few years later, when I was already working as a traveling nurse — this time in Pennsylvania — I had met someone and I was wanting to just come out and be done with it. I planned a trip back home to Kentucky so I could let him be aware and if it didn’t work out or he exploded, I would just go back to Pennsylvania and return to my business. While I was home we went to Walmart together — I wanted to tell him on the way to the store but worried if things went badly it would be a long ride home. So on the way back, I decided to let him know that I liked men.

What did he say? 

Well, first he asked me, “Why are you just telling me now?” He was then a little off for about 48 hours but then gave me a big hug and told me he loves me no matter what.

That’s a good start, but I suspect there remains a lot of work to be done.

There is, for sure. Gay people here usually try to remain under the radar. They don’t want to be too flamboyant or obvious. Especially gay business owners — because many of their customers are very conservative and will stop going to them if they think, even for a second, that gay folks are trying to push some sort of an agenda. We have two gay-owned businesses in Lebanon — one that deals with interior design and another that sort of sells souvenirs — so I speak from personal experience.

What about your own way of dressing, do you worry about looking too “flamboyant or obvious”?

It depends on the moment. A lot of times you’ll see me in either khaki shorts and a T-shirt or just plain sports/gym shorts and a T-shirt. Sometimes, I’ll dress up and wear nicer clothes with floral button-ups or shirts with crazy patterns. I sometimes think to myself, “OK, I’m wearing this, it’s a little different,” but I tell myself it will be OK. The key thing, I think, is having strong confidence, which will always take you a long way in the smaller towns.

Logan Lee in his hometown of Lebanon, Kentucky. Photo by Rodney Hagan 
Logan Lee in his hometown of Lebanon, Kentucky. Photo by Rodney Hagan

Small-town life can sound tough on individuality.

Oh, it is. There is a lot of gossip in a town like this; people love to talk about each other — this was one of the reasons I think it took me so long to come out of the closet. Part of me thought, “I don’t want to come out because I don’t want people talking about me. I don’t want people thinking — oh he’s a nice person, but stay away from him because he is gay.” Things can be so gossipy that even gay people don’t want to be seen with other gay people because it draws too much attention to them. They think, “If I’m seen with a gay person, then people will think I’m gay!”

That’s a really toxic calculation. How important is religion in all of this?

Faith is very important around here. Most people are Catholic, though some are Baptist, and everyone goes to church. That is just how it is. You’re born and raised and grow up going to church and then you graduate, get a job, buy a house, marry a woman and have a family — and then go to church. It’s just the same thing from generation to generation.

So how does queer fit into all of this?

It doesn’t — and that’s the problem. There is no room or role for someone or something that is different. People will just think, “Oh no, you can’t be like that” or “Why would you want to be like that?” — so being gay just throws everything and everyone off. But this is how a lot of religions are in the Deep South.  

At home in the cornfields: Logan Lee in rural Kentucky. Photo courtesy Logan Lee
At home in the cornfields: Logan Lee in rural Kentucky. Photo courtesy Logan Lee

How do we break this cycle, how do you change folks’ outlooks on these types of issues? 

You can show people that even though they may have different opinions, it’s OK to accept others who are different. Let them know that just because someone is gay or Black or Mexican, that we all come together in terms of acceptance, we can all work together, make a living together, celebrate together.

Are you a believer yourself?

I was raised Catholic and very religious — church every Sunday. But it was always hard for me to focus while there. And so when I was 18, I made a decision not to attend church anymore. My family was sort of like, “What do you mean you don’t want to go to church anymore?” But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t sit down every week in a place that insisted marriage must be between a man and a woman. I don’t care what the Bible says, I just didn’t want to hear it anymore.

And yet you’re still very connected to your community.

Again, I love the traditions of small-town life, love the way we do things here. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but there is a type of kindness in the South that is very special. People here help each other out, if they see you struggling they offer a hand. There is a niceness we show to each other, we smile and greet one another, and I love that. 

“I love the traditions of small-town life, love the way we do things here. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but there is a type of kindness in the South that is very special.” — Logan Lee

Do you ever feel you need to be extra nice, smile extra hard because you are gay?

Not all of the time, but it can feel that way for sure. I know people know I am different so I think I need to make an extra effort to stay on folks’ good side. And, sure, this can feel like a burden or unfair — I know it shouldn’t be this way, necessarily. But also this is just sort of who I am — I’ve been me for such a long time and this kindness is really just second nature.

Is this a contrast to big-city life?

I’ve seen how gay people can treat each other in places like New York — at first they seem very nice and helpful, but suddenly folks hear your accent, they think you’re “country” or from a small town and they might become sassy and even bitchy. But I don’t let it bother me. If I am in a gay bar somewhere like Midtown or Hell’s Kitchen, I just go up and talk to people like I would anywhere else. Some may find it a bit over-friendly, but that’s just me — no matter where I go, I am always just me. 

Logan Lee on a recent trip to Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Logan Lee
Logan Lee on a recent trip to Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Logan Lee

So how might “big-city” people best learn from people living in small towns?

Taking a slower approach would be beneficial — because it’s a much slower lifestyle. Pulling up to someone’s house in a black SUV or wearing suits could be perceived as intimidating. We are laid back. We will get to it when we can. Also, use manners.

Building a personal connection is also critical.

It always helps if you can find something that resonates with other people. In my career in critical-care nursing, I have about 30 seconds to decide how I will approach the patient and how I will talk with their family members. If you can find something you can connect on, it’s so much easier to care for their loved ones. If you cannot, it’s going to be a very long 12-hour shift.

Logan during a recent hiking trip in coal country, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Logan Lee
Logan during a recent hiking trip in coal country, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Logan Lee

Tell us a bit about your profession, working as a nurse in smaller areas of the nation. 

Usually, the medical staff all know one another from either years of working alongside each other or from seeing them just down the road. It can be challenging because in small hospitals, there are not resources readily available so you have to be on your toes in case something goes wrong. You can transfer the patient just to the next unit but have to wait for an ambulance or helicopter to become available to take them to a larger medical center that will meet complex needs. That’s not so much of an issue in big cities.

Is your work appreciated? 

Usually, the community of patients will treat you better than your place of employment. We no longer want pizza parties. We want raises and respect.

What needs to be done to improve rural health care?

The biggest thing would be having appropriate resources in the small towns. Of course, they have hospitals but it would be nice if there were big offices from large universities offering services to the small town folks. The staff from those offices could then come to the hospitals and practices and educate staff members here to keep them up to date on current practices.

Another way to increase healthcare would be educate, educate, educate. In a lot of small towns, individuals are simply scared to go to the doctor, even if they have insurance. So what we see is some people never go at all and when they do come in, it’s more of an emergency, but they have lots of issues not related to the emergency to fix simply because they never went to the doctor for physicals. But for all of that, it takes money. The same goes for the LGBTQ communities in small, rural America. Rural towns do not have resource centers which makes it harder on the folks here, especially young kids. 

You have a very special relationship with your mom…

Yes, my mom and I have a very deep bond and even though there are things we cannot say to each other, we find our unique way of communicating. We write letters to each other — even if we are in the same house. We send and post them and then we receive them. And in our letters, we tell each other things that we might not be able to say to each other. This is how we get through the hard times without making each other upset or angry; we write them down to each other. It’s a very nice way of doing things, even if it probably makes our mailman kind of crazy.

One of the letters Logan exchanges with his mom, this one in 2020, from his book, Small-Town Gay. Reprinted with permission of Logan Lee
One of the letters Logan exchanges with his mom, this one in 2020, from his book, Small-Town Gay. Reprinted with permission of Logan Lee

It also feels quite small-town and Southern, no?

I’m not sure if it’s a small-town thing or not. It’s just something that she and I began. I am very happy we took this route rather than enduring screaming battles with us saying things we didn’t really mean. I think it was easier to get all our words and views and points out on paper, and not say things we would regret later.

Logan Lee and his pup, Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Logan Lee
Logan Lee and his pup, Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Logan Lee

You also like to journal — and those journals became the basis for your book Small Town Gay. 

I’ve always kept a journal when traveling for my work assignments, mostly writing about the things I miss most about my town — the cornfields, my mom’s casseroles, stories my mother told me growing up, or about my sister and I as little kids. I write about the small-town life I was missing and why it meant so much to me. This was a way to keep me grounded, but suddenly I realized I’d written like 70,000 words and I thought to myself, “I need to publish this and do a book.” 

What gave you the confidence to think that way?

I knew my story about small-town gay life was different and I felt that it should be heard. Especially in smaller towns where we don’t have resources for younger people, we don’t have the guidance counselors or school clubs to help young people out. So maybe I can help them out with my words in a book. 

What about love? 

Well, like I said, it’s going to be harder here in a place like Lebanon, but I want love. I want to be married. And have children. I want these things. Maybe someone will love this rural life like I do and want to move out here with me. Love is worth it.

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